The Bell Labs of Quantum Computing
Raymond Laflamme can’t yet sell you a quantum computer. But he’ll sell you a $13,000 logic board for measuring entangled photons.
It’s a start.
Laflamme is head of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo, a research center that’s part of a quixotic, grandiose effort by Mike Lazaridis, cofounder of the smartphone maker BlackBerry, to invent a quantum computer and turn this city 70 miles from Toronto into a “Quantum Valley.”
Since 1999, Lazaridis has put $270 million behind his vision, paying to recruit some of the world’s best theoretical physicists. While he thinks a true quantum computer is still 10 years away, he believes initial discoveries can be commercialized now, turning Waterloo into a thriving industrial cluster built around quantum information science.
Waterloo has one of world’s best computer science departments at the University of Waterloo. It’s also corporate home to BlackBerry, previously known as Research in Motion, and an increasingly rich ecosystem of startups. But quantum mechanics is not exactly an easy elevator pitch. “As much as the region is a mecca for entrepreneurship, it’s a much different challenge to commercialize pure quantum technology,” says Rolf Horn, a postdoc at the institute who’s trying to start a company to sell a device that can produce photons that exhibit quantum effects.
Quantum computers should have the ability to quickly solve problems that today’s computers cannot touch, such as breaking very difficult cryptographic ciphers. What’s more, fast progress in conventional computing—described by Moore’s Law—is nearing the physical limits of materials like silicon. You “don’t have to know a lot about physics” to realize there’s money to be made pushing past those limits, Lazaridis says.
It is still very early days for quantum computers. At the Institute for Quantum Computing, also funded heavily by Canada’s government, the most complex quantum computer operates with just 12 qubits. A qubit is the quantum equivalent to a bit. Thanks to quantum mechanics, each qubit can be in multiple states simultaneously (imagine a bit that could be a 0, a 1, or both at once). That permits faster calculations for some problems, but keeping qubits stable has proved difficult.
Lazaridis has used his wealth to bring top scientists to Waterloo, starting with a $100 million gift in 2000 to create the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. But the quantum computing effort may not be able to rely on his largesse forever. His wealth, at least on paper, has plummeted by more than $2 billion along with BlackBerry’s stock price as its phones have lost popularity. In a 2012 shakeup, Lazaridis stepped down as BlackBerry’s co-CEO.
Quantum Valley also won’t become a real industry cluster if all it does is recruit the world’s best academic researchers. That is one reason why in March, Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, BlackBerry’s other founder, launched a $100 million investment fund, Quantum Valley Investments. “We built all this and it was very altruistic, very much philanthropy,” says Lazaridis. “But some of the researchers came to us and said, you know, this quantum computer—some of the technology we’re working on has spinoffs.”
Laflamme has gadgets reflecting a few of those ideas spread out on a coffee table in his office, including a simple two-qubit processor with the solder still visible, and a metal box the size of a router that’s useful for measuring photon sources. That box is the basis of his small startup company, Universal Quantum Devices.
Laflamme calls the company an “experiment” in how to commercialize basic aspects of quantum technology. If it seems like small stuff, recall that the first products of Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Valley’s original computing giant, were frequency counters and a simple oscillator for measuring sound.
Other commercialization efforts include a satellite that could use quantum properties of light to send encrypted communications. A prototype will be tested this summer by putting it on a flatbed truck and running it around Waterloo’s wheat fields, to see if it tracks with an optics receiver on the roof of the institute’s research buildings.
Lazaridis’s new venture fund has not yet invested in any of these ideas. Still, Laflamme says things are going better than he expected. “In 2001, people would say, ‘When are you going to have spinoffs coming out?’ and I would say 20 years, thinking, ‘I’ll be safe with that,’” he says. “Now I can see it coming.”
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